John Clay

The debate is Justify-ed, but here’s who should win Horse of the Year

Justify looking good day after winning Triple Crown

One day after winning the Belmont Stakes to complete the Triple Crown, Justify looked bright and alert. Trainer Bob Baffert said the colt would return to Louisville, but there are no set plans for his next possible race.
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One day after winning the Belmont Stakes to complete the Triple Crown, Justify looked bright and alert. Trainer Bob Baffert said the colt would return to Louisville, but there are no set plans for his next possible race.

Back in 1935, after sweeping Thoroughbred racing’s classic races, Omaha lost twice to Discovery, first in the Brooklyn Handicap, then in the Eclipse Award voting, making Omaha the only Triple Crown winner to not be voted Horse of the Year.

Eight decades later, Justify could be the second.

We’ll know for sure next week when the Eclipse Awards are officially announced Jan. 24 at Gulfstream Park. The voting deadline was Jan. 2, from which we learned the three finalists for the sport’s highest honor — Triple Crown winner Justify, Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Accelerate and 3-year-old champion filly Monomoy Girl.

In most any other year, Justify would be a lock. After all, the son of Scat Daddy is just the 13th Triple Crown winner. He was the first since Apollo in 1882 to win the Kentucky Derby after being unraced as a 2-year-old. He joined Seattle Slew as the second undefeated Triple Crown winner, and the first to retire undefeated when an injury sent him to stud after the Belmont Stakes.

Therein lies the rub, however. Owned in a partnership headed by Woodford County’s WinStar Farm and trained by Bob Baffert, Justify raced for only 111 days from his February debut through June 9. He never ran against older horses. He didn’t compete in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

That has opened the door for the backers of Accelerate, a 5-year-old son of Lookin At Lucky whose stellar 2018 campaign stretched from the San Pasqual Stakes on Feb. 3 at Santa Anita right through his win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 3 at Churchill Downs.

Owned by Kosta and Peter Hronis and trained by John Sadler, Accelerate won six of his seven races, the loss coming in the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap on April 4 in Arkansas, where he finished second. He recorded five Grade 1 wins, including a sweep of the California Triple — the Santa Anita Handicap, the Gold Cup and the Pacific Classic, which he won by a record 12 1/2 lengths.

Not even the far outside No. 14 post could keep Accelerate from the Breeders’ Cup Classic winner’s circle at Churchill. That victory capped a magnificent training job by Sadler, who patiently brought along a horse that had won just four of his 15 starts before 2018.

None of this is to slight Monomoy Girl, who won nine of 11 races, including the Grade 1 Ashland Stakes at Keeneland, the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks at Churchill and the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Still, most believe the brilliant daughter of Tapizar will wind up third in the voting.

Which brings us to the burning question: Does Accelerate’s dazzling year take precedence over a Triple Crown winner?

Traditionalists would answer yes. The award after all is “Horse of the Year” not “Horse of May and June.” It was not Justify’s fault he did not race after the Triple Crown, but the fact remains he did not race after the Triple Crown. Unlike previous Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, he never beat older horses.

Meanwhile, Accelerate took on all comers of all ages. The one hole in his resume — that he had never won outside of California — was filled by the November win in Louisville. In most every other year, his accomplishments should almost certainly earn him Horse of the Year honors.

Just not this year, it says here. There has been a Breeders’ Cup Classic winner every year for the past 35 years, but there have been just 13 Triple Crown winners in 150 years. That American Pharoah won the Triple Crown, and the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland, just three years earlier takes nothing away from the difficulty of the feat. Justify is just the second Triple Crown champion in the past 40 years.

That he pulled if off in such a short period of time, winning six consecutive races from a maiden special weight in February through the Belmont in June, is even more remarkable. So, yes, Accelerate was spectacular in 2018. In my book, however, Justify is the Horse of the Year.

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